With the completion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami, I have read everything in the fiction realm that Murakami has written that has been translated into English, which is virtually all of it with the exception of a handful of recent short stories. That rather prolific body of work includes thirteen novels, three short story collections and an oddball kid’s novella. Quite by accident rather than any design on my part, my final notch in the Murakami catalog represents something of the mid-point of the author’s career – South of the Border, West of the Sun appeared first in Japan in 1992 and was later released in English in 2000; six novels were published before it, and six more after it. This review thus affords a kind of opportunity for me to reflect not only on this novel but also upon Murakami’s overall literary impact.
Like the author, Hajime – the central character of South of the Border, West of the Sun – is an only child who grows up to own a jazz bar. Like nearly every Murakami male protagonist, Hajime is a passive, introspective fellow who rather than managing his own destiny more or less lets life happen to him. Approaching middle age, an affluent family man in a stable but colorless marriage, Hajime finds himself haunted both by the memories of an old girlfriend whom he once hurt very deeply, and by a longing for a close female childhood friend named Shimamoto who dragged one leg due to polio. Some two and a half decades have passed since he has seen her, but one day Shimamoto randomly shows up in his jazz bar, a mysterious and now strikingly beautiful woman whose leg has been mended by surgery. Hajime falls deeply in love with her, but the enigmatic Shimamoto disappears and reappears in his life without explanation over the coming months. Still, Hajime finds himself committed to her and willing to give up his family and sacrifice everything to be with her.
The first part of the novel’s title corresponds to a song ostensibly recorded by Nat King Cole; the second refers to an Inuit syndrome known as “Arctic hysteria” where monotony begets a series of irrational acts followed by amnesia. While most critics fail to reflect upon this, the signposts in the title and various other clues lead me to believe that the adult Shimamoto was in fact an imaginary phantom conjured up in Hajime’s mid-life crisis rather than an actual flesh-and-blood lover, but there remains enough ambiguity that – as with the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – it could easily go either way. Like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – which Murakami has said deeply influenced him and which he himself translated into Japanese – the style and tone of South of the Border, West of the Sun seems rather ordinary while reading it, yet belies a much greater complexity that is only truly revealed once the final pages have been turned.
In the same sense, I suppose, I find myself relishing Murakami’s prose far more than I actually value each book as a finished work. That is perhaps odd, but I’m not certain there is a better way to express it. Of the thirteen Murakami novels, I still would call Kafka on the Shore – the very first one I read – his most brilliant work and the one I enjoyed the most. And by far the one I liked the very least was his most recent, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I recall being frustrated as hell by all of the loose ends that remain frayed at the conclusion of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84, but it is in retrospect that I came to reflect upon these as great literature and among his finest works. Like most critics I loved A Wild Sheep Chase, and find it amusing that so many pseudo-intellectuals simply don’t get it. Unlike many fans, I found the much celebrated Norwegian Wood boring and uninspiring. Still, once you are bitten by the Murakami bug, it remains hard to let go. Like the songs of the Beatles, there really isn’t a truly bad tune.